Also check out my Twitter and Facebook pages!


Monday, September 2, 2013

The Art of Foreshadowing

Picture Credit: http://kiplimochemirmir.wordpress.com/
Foreshadowing is a suggestion of what is coming later in the book. The best foreshadowing does this in a way that the reader doesn't notice at the time.

Why does it matter?

You may be thinking to yourself that the only one you can think of who raves about foreshadowing is your literature teacher. The truth is, stories are not as fulfilling without it--especially stories with surprise endings.

Without foreshadowing, the ending will not necessarily feel inevitable. Even--and maybe especially--when there are surprise endings, you need them to feel inevitable. That way the reader may not have guessed what will happen in the end, but it will flow and they will understand how it happened.

Picture Credit: http://pekoeblaze.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/

How do you do it?

Present the ending of the book as a possibility by giving glimpses of pieces of the ending. Brandon Sanderson is a master at foreshadowing. If you haven't read his Mistborn trilogy, I highly recommend it. The ending absolutely blew my mind because it was the very last thing I would have guessed as a possibility. Yet, if you look back at his series, all the pieces are there. Without spoiling anything, I can say that small objects that he treats as insignificant all through the series turn out to have great significance. Things that seem to be minor subplots turn out to be essential pieces that bring about the ending. Because of the thick foreshadowing (that never feels like foreshadowing) the surprise ending fits naturally into place.

For anyone who hasn't read Sanderson's books, let's take a look at a couple movies that I think most everyone has seen by now. Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn't seen them yet!

The Sixth Sense
Even if you haven't seen this movie, I think you've already heard that child psychologist Dr. Crowe (Bruce Willis) is dead almost from the beginning--he just doesn't know it. Think of how well it's set up. At the beginning of the movie you see him get shot. Then he begins working with a boy who sees dead people, most of whom don't realize that they are dead. During the whole movie no one but the boy talks to or even looks at Dr. Crowe. His wife is in the process of moving on with her life after his death.

The first time you watched the movie (assuming you hadn't already had the ending spoiled for you) the signs are there but seem to have other explanations. Not everyone who gets shot dies, the boy is obviously troubled and it would make sense for the parents to hire a psychologist for him, Dr. Crowe's marriage seems to be very troubled, and so on. If you're like me, when you found out he was dead you were shocked but at the same time it made sense. The second time I watched it, I saw the foreshadowing so glaring that it amazed me that I didn't put it together sooner.

The Prestige
This movie has multiple mysteries you try to put together the first time you watch it. You question how Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is able to pull off his trick and how he is so certain he will be leaving jail again to see his daughter when he has been sentenced to death. You also question what is happening with Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and his trick. The whole movie seems to be moving in a way you can't quite put together. Yet, there are signs that are unmistakable if you'd only paid pay attention to them. Alfred catches on to the other magician's trick at the beginning of the movie because he understands the idea of living a life around the magic act, you see the unusual relationship Alfred has with his stage manager, you see the fact that Alfred's wife understands that he doesn't love her sometimes, you see that when his hand is injured it acts like a fresh injury longer than it should. Robert is blatant about his obsession and it shows you straight-out that his machine is replicating himself every night. Then, of course, you have one of the characters at the beginning of the movie saying, "Now you're looking for the secret...but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know."

Somehow, despite all the blatant foreshadowing, you don't put everything together until it's spelled out in the end. It's not until the second time you watch the movie that you recognize that you should have known.

What Does This Mean to You?

Find a way to break up clues of what is coming later in your book. Stick those clues into the middle of your story in a way that they don't draw attention to themselves. Then the progression of your story--and especially your ending--will feel natural and inevitable. Readers like it when they guess wrong about what will happen next, but they don't like it when a surprise feels too abrupt and unnatural.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks! I love reading books where the authors do this one well. Speaking of good authors, I'm excited about your book that will be released in just a few days now.

  2. Foreshadowing. Oh that little devil. This used to kill me in my writing, until I realized I was doing it without even thinking about it. I'd say to just let it come naturally, your writer brain will tweak and pop things in without you noticing. You can always come back and try again later.
    JK Rowling is another excellent example of foreshadowing, I've read the third book many times and am still surprised by what I catch.
    Great post. Foreshadowing is like objects in the foreground, you don't see them until they're important.

    1. Good advise, Tayla. I agree that generally it will insert itself nicely as you're following your planed story line. And I completely agree about JK Rowling being a good example. She is very talented. I love how well all of her books fit together. And even in the beginning books she was giving foreshadowing about what would come in the end.